Unregistered: The world’s invisible children

For the world’s millions of unregistered children, many basic human rights remain out of reach.

Ethiopia children Al Jazeera [Al Jazeera]
Ethiopia children Al Jazeera [Al Jazeera]

We live in a world of documents – papers and records that justify or legitimize our access to rights and social services. However, despite demonstrably existing, a person without the proper papers might not be entitled to medical treatment, social services, an education or many other things that most would consider state functions that serve one’s basic human rights.

The UN continues to focus on the issue, because although gains have been made in the 25 years since The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted (note: the US is one of only three countries that has not ratified the convention), one of the major outstanding issues is that several countries don’t have proper mechanisms in place to count the number of children who are born.

This makes it fairly impossible to improve their lives and guarantee protection of their rights throughout their life.

How big is this problem? According to UNICEF, there are, worldwide, roughly 230 million children under the age of five whose births are not registered.

The lack of proper documentation doesn’t just mean that these children can be denied access to schooling, travel documents, property inheritance and all the rest.  They are also more vulnerable to exploitation over cases like forced labour and marriage, as well as potentially being legally treated as adults, rather than children, should they be accused of a crime.

“Registering children at birth is the first step in securing their recognition before the law, safeguarding their rights and ensuing that any violation of these rights does not go unnoticed,” reads UNICEF’s 2013 report.

“The lack of formal recognition by the state means that the child won’t be able to get a birth certificate,” said Claudia Cappa, lead author of the UNICEF report, who explained that registering a child’s birth in most countries is the first step to getting a birth certificate. Without the former, the latter is often out of reach.

The results of this bureaucratic oversight can be catastrophic: No birth certificate often means no primary school education and possible early conscription. It means never having travel documents, not being able to vote, and, in many cases, not being eligible for government jobs – the only source  of stable employment in some countries.

In the case of an emergency, parents of unregistered children are often separated from them as they have no way of proving their relationship to the child.

Cappa said that the UN has developed different strategies in helping parents and governments register children, depending on the barriers that must be overcome – and the barriers are many.

“Sometimes the issue is cost, other times there are discriminatory laws in place …for example, single mothers out of wedlock might not be allowed to register a birth … or members of a certain ethnic group might not be able to do so,” said Cappa.

Campaigns that innovate and raise awareness of the problem are growing.  For instance, there is a Ministerial Conference in Bangkok focusing on the issue on November 24.

And in Uganda, a mobile and online registration program has lead to a jump in birth registrations.

Crisis Management Initiative, an NGO, launched a similar initiative in Liberia, where only four percent of births are registered. The group trained local teams on the ground to help expedite the process, enabling birth registration and easing the burden on parents living in remote areas. 

Birth, death and disappearance

The UK medical journal the Lancet published a series on the issue in May – the statistics on this global issue are jarring.

Each year, about 5.5 million babies are born and die without ever being registered. Daily, that translates to 15,000 being born and dying, without leaving a trace. 

Despite a UN resolution calling on countries to register every birth, 50 million of about 135 million births are never registered.

Dr Joy Lawn, professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the lead researchers in the Lancet series, told Al Jazeera that there are 70 countries in the world where good data is not available on the number of registered births.

“If a country doesn’t count 90 percent of its children, then it’s not responsible for providing healthcare and education for them,” said Lawn, who is also a senior health advisor to Save the Children.

She lists several countries where there are various barriers to families registering the births of their children – often involved with logistics and cost.

In Somalia, only three percent of children are registered by their first birthday. In Bangladesh it is nine percent. Even in Tanzania, where 50 percent of the births take place in a medical facility, only 15 percent of births are registered

“That represents a lot of missed opportunities,” said Lawn, who was born in northern Uganda and was not registered until she was almost two years old.

There are improvements in some countries – using national security and the tax base as incentives, more states are starting to realize the importance registering all births – even of babies that don’t survive the first crucial, fragile days of life.

“You’re giving your most vulnerable citizens a human right by giving them a piece of paper,” said Lawn. Still, she says she’s more optimistic about the situation than she was 15 years ago.

Progress, though, will be variable, says Lawn, with some governments making improvements in their birth registration system – as Brazil has – and others, where “governments are least accountable for their most vulnerable citizens,” lagging.

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